Peter Parker was a high school science student. He was not very popular with the other students and in fact was picked on and ridiculed for being a ‘square’ by the more popular kids.
He was an orphan who lived with his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben who loved him as if he was their own son.
One day, at a science exhibit, unbeknownst to anyone in attendance, a small spider entered a high-radiation area and became irradiated itself. Before dying, it bit Peter Parker.
Peter became ill and stepped outside to get some fresh air and clear his head. In his preoccupation with the spider-s bite and his feelings of nausea, he wandered into the path of an oncoming car. In the last split-second before the car would have struck him, Peter leaped out of the way.
But his leap carried him three stories into the air towards the side of a building. Putting out his hands to keep from crashing into the wall, he was startled to discover that his fingertips adhered to its surface and he clung to it high above the street below.
Amazed, he began scaling the wall until he reached the roof. Reaching out to grasp a steel pipe, he was again astounded as the stiff metal was crushed in his hand like aluminum foil.
Ever the scientist, Peter sought to further test his abilities. Happening upon a contest which offered $100 to anyone who could stay in the ring for three minutes with a professional wrestler, Peter thought this would be an adequate test.
But not wanting to embarrass himself, Peter pulled a stocking mask over his head to disguise himself. And it is in this disguise that he showed up at the arena and challenged the burly wrestler for the prize money.
Once in the ring, Peter was tiny compared to his bulky opponent. But as the match began, Peter nimbly avoided the wrestlers grasp, then tossed the man onto his shoulder like a feather pillow and leapt up to cling to one of the ring corner posts high above the crowd. The wrestler quickly conceded and Peter set him safely in the ring.
In the midst of the cheering audience, a television producer pondered what a fantastic attraction someone like the masked character could be. As Peter counted his prize money, the producer approached him and gave Peter his card. He told Peter he could make him rich.
Reaching home, Peter decided that if he was to embark on a career as a masked entertainer, he would need a colorful costume. To that end, he designed a red and blue suit with an overhead mask that had white one-way lenses so people couldn’t even see his eyes.
And employing his scientific skills, he created a fast-drying fluid that could be use as his own ‘spider’s web’ to hang or swing from. He even created devices that he could wear on his wrists that could spray the webbing out through tiny nozzles when he pressed the buttons in his palms with his fingers.
Now, armed with his amazing powers, nifty gadgets and colorful costume, Spider-Man became a television sensation, doing things that defied reality to the eyes of the enthralled audiences – crawling up and down sheer walls, using his webshooters in fantastic ways, hanging and swing about the studio in ways that seemed to defy gravity and physics.
After a show one evening, Spider-Man had a rare moment alone, standing in a studio hallway, when a man ran towards him pursued by an elderly police officer who yelled for someone to stop the thief. Spider-Man stood passively as the thief dashed past him and safely into a closing elevator. The police officer chided Spider-Man for not helping. Spider-Man responded coolly, saying that he was tired of taking orders from other people and would only do what was in his own best interest from then on.
But one evening soon after, returning from another television appearance, Peter saw police cars in front of his house. The same old officer he had seen nights before at the studio told Peter that a burglar had broken into the house and killed his Uncle Ben. But, he told Peter that they had the man cornered in the Acme Warehouse near the docks.
In a rage, Peter donned his red-and-blue costume and swung off across town on strands of webbing fired from his webshooters, vowing that though the murderer might be able to hold off the police, he wouldn’t hold off Spider-Man.
Outside the old boarded-up warehouse, the police were powerless, while inside, the murderer, holding a gun, planned to slip past them in the dark.
But suddenly, like a nightmare crawling down the wall towards the murderer, Spider-Man tells him that he will never escape again. The murderer, thinking he must be seeing things, tried to run, but Spider-Man made a tremendous leap from the wall, vaulted over the murderer’s head and landed in front of him, blocking his getaway.
The murderer pointed his pistol but Spider-Man immediately covered the gun and the man’s hand with a later of webbing, rendering the weapon useless. And then, faster than the man could react, Spider-Man knocked him cold with a vicious right cross to the jaw.
And then, in one of the cruelest twists of fate, the murderer’s head lolls back as Spider-Man holds his inert body, revealing him to be the man who had raced past Spider-Man at the studio nights before, the man Spider-Man could have easily stopped but had let go because he couldn’t be bothered with other people’s problems.
And in that terrible moment, Spider-Man realized that if he had only taken a moment to do something to stop the murderer when he had the chance, his Uncle Ben would still be alive.
And so, after hanging the murderer from a strand of webbing for the police to find, Spider-Man wandered off into the darkness, realizing that when fate grants someone great power, it also demands great responsibility.
This comic is one of those great against-all-odds stories of a million-to-one smash hit.
First, Lee’s publisher, Martin Goodman, told Stan that, for one thing, people hated spiders. Then he told him that a teenager could only be a sidekick, never a hero starring in his own book.
But Lee was so committed to the story that he decided to run it in the last issue of a failing anthology series called Amazing Adult Fantasy. For the fifteenth and final issue, they dropped the ‘adult’ part and just called it Amazing Fantasy.
In Lee’s own words, he ran the story and then promptly forgot all about the series and Spider-Man. That was until the sales reports came in a couple of months later along with a deluge of letters raving about how great the story was and what a great, unique, original character Spider-Man was.
By March of the next year, The Amazing Spider-Man had his own series. And the rest, as they say, is history.
If I haven’t already mentioned it, Spider-Man is my favorite superhero.
The reasons are many, but off the top of my head, he has the sweetest costume, especially the white one-way lenses that hide his eyes. He also, for my money, has the coolest powers – some natural, some via his immense scientific creativity – wall crawling powers, webshooters, spider-sense, super-fast reflexes, balance, speed and agility. He is incredibly strong, especially for his size. And he is a kid, just as I was when I first discovered him.
The tone of his comic book appealed to me more that any other, melodramatic but with plenty of humor. And Spider-Man, like myself, was a loner. He spent much of each issue alone with his thoughts just as I frequently did.
The story from his origin issue is particularly classic. For my money, it is the most perfect origin story ever created.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had been cruising along with the success of the Fantastic Four and The Hulk. Lee asked Kirby to draw the Spider-Man story but Kirby’s version was about a boy who finds a magical ring that transforms him when the need arises. Ditko pointed out to Lee that this was the same story Kirby had done for a character called the Silver Spider for another company.
Likewise, Lee was not happy with Kirby’s rendition of the character. Kirby’s characters all had chiseled jaws and physiques. Lee wanted Peter Parker to be a nebbish, a shy, skinny, unattractive and unpopular bookworm that fit Ditko’s character renderings to the letter.
Ditko was an inspired choice. His version of Parker was appropriately pitiful-looking while his concept of Spider-Man, unlike Kirby’s majestic powerhouses, was lithe and acrobatic, and uniquely mysterious in his skin-tight red-and-blue costume with menacingly shaped white eyes rimmed in black.
As the years passed, Lee and Ditko grew further apart on their ideas of what Spider-Man and his stories should be. And as Lee was the boss, Ditko eventually left after 38 issues.
But, fate in its infinite wisdom, provided the perfect successor – ‘Jazzy’ Johnny Romita, a romance artist who had worked for Marvel in the 50s and who had been doing art duties on Daredevil. At first, just as when any popular creator is replaced, Romita was not very popular.
In time however, he not only matched Ditko’s popularity, many say he exceeded it. And his version of Spider-Man became the house style.
Romita soon became the art director for Marvel, and his art duties on Spider-Man were first shared by the likes of Don Heck, Jim Mooney and John Buscema, before being taken over completely, going first to Gil Kane, and then to Ross Andru, the Spidey artist of the 70s.
The writing chores for The Amazing Spider-Man also changed hands, beginning with Lee’s protege, Roy Thomas, and then to the other quartet of 70s EICs, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Gerry Conway and Archie Goodwin, as well as Roger Stern.
Spider-Man is undeniably the Mickey Mouse to Marvel’s Disney. He has spawned numerous other titles – Marvel Team-up, Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, and Spider-Man, as well as numerous one-shots, mini-series, and other shorter-lived series with various adjectives before the name.
Every person has their favorite superhero. Some are more obscure characters, some more popular. Obviously, mine is one of the most popular of all. But, just as every other person who claims Spidey as theirs, my reasons are as unique as they are personal.
I will finish on a low-note – I have not been happy with the directions (and I use the plural because I feel like the character has been pulled this way and that) the company has taken the character since the mid-nineties, beginning with the Clone Saga.
What followed was, to me, a succession of storylines which were more and more poorly conceived, and which eventually ended a decades-long passion for me – buying Marvel comics. A few of these storylines which stick out in my mind are the following:
- 1998 – ‘The Gathering of the Five’ and ‘The Final Chapter’ – the problems with these interconnected stories were that they brought back Aunt May – AGAIN! – and they started immersing Spider-Man into the magical/mystical genre, a genre that he is great at brushing up against, as in when he co-stars with Dr. Strange on one of his trips to another realm, but not so much as a main part of who his character is and the type of story he is the primary protagonist in. The prime suspects here are EIC Terry Stewart, notorious for letting all of the major artists who formed Image defect in the early 90s for not giving them enough recognition or monetary remuneration for the money they made the company (and who was about to be succeeded by an EIC whose failures his would pale in comparison to), Tom DeFalco and John Byrne.
- 2000 – Ultimate Spider-Man – because Spider-Man had been around for so long and had gotten married and graduated college and so forth, Marvel tried to figure out how to get the character back to the younger version so many people who read his comics had first been attracted to. So, they decided to launch a new alternate-reality series called the ‘Ultimate’ line which would also include retooled versions of The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and pretty much everyone else. In taking Spider-Man and Peter Parker ‘back’ to a version of him that they perceived as a more successful one, they hired Brian Michael Bendis to author this vision. Bendis is one of the first examples of a writer who is very good when he writes in his best genre but not so well when he tries to adapt that different genre to superhero comic books. Bendis’s Powers series was a great series in the hard-boiled crime vein. Unfortunately, Bendis trying to write Spider-Man was atrocious. It didn’t take long for the series to sharply-depart from what was actually the true reason for the early Spider-Man comics’ success – namely, that they were a lot of fun! – and into one dark, tragic story line after another which ultimately (no pun intended) ended with the death of Peter Parker. But that event birthed an even greater travesty: Mile Morales, the new Spider-Man who would actually (somehow) cross over into the 616 universe and replace the original version of Spider-Man. Morales was a ‘half-black (skin)/half-Latino (name) kid who Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli called their ‘creation’ by changing the race/ethnicity of the main character, changing some colors on the costume, and adding one or two new (and non-spider-related) powers, but leaving everything else the same, including the character name! If Stan Lee’s idea of ‘creation’ had been the same as theirs, instead of the 60s renaissance Marvel explosion of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Iron Man, The X-Men, and yes, Spider-Man, we would instead have gotten the wet-firecracker-pop of revamped versions of The Destroyer, Marvex the Super-Robot, and Flexo the Rubber Man. Thank God Stan had more talent than to merely be an appropriator of other creators’ ideas. Building on the success formula of Bendis-doing-‘new’-Marvel-characters, he ‘created’ Riri Williams, a teenage black girl who is smarter than Tony Stark, who steals his tech, and then becomes a sort-of ward to him, and become Iron Heart, the new Iron Man. To find motivation for these two miserably misbegotten abominations, look no further than the fact that Bendis is a white man who has two black children. One of the most blatant destroyers of years of Marvel continuity integrity, Bendis went on to spread his particular brand of poison within DC Comics, ruining, in the eyes of many fans of the character, the legacy of Superman.
- 2004 – ‘Sins Past’ – here begins the horrendous beginnings of J Micheal Staczynski’s authorship of terrible Spider-Man storylines. And this one is a doozy. Because a drawn out explanation would probably make me physically ill, I’ll just give you the abridged version. Essentially, Peter finds out that while visiting England, an event shown over a couple of issues of Amazing Spider-Man in the early 70s, Gwen Stacy gave birth to twins. When he tells MJ, she breaks down and confesses that Gwen had told her about it before she died but asked her to keep it secret. Worse, when Peter tells MJ he doesn’t understand how it could have happened as he and Gwen had never slept together, MJ tells him that the father is Norman Osborne. I won’t go into more details about the story – it is atrocious – but will simply say that this forever damaged anything that was established about Peter and Gwen’s relationship and much of Spider-Man’s canon. By this time, Joe Quesada, by far the main villain in the downfall of the Spider-Man most fans knew and loved, had become EIC in the wake of Marvel’s bankruptcy and recapitalization. He, along with toadie Axel Alonzo, would approve all of the horrid Spider-Man storylines that would follow. Staczynski wrote it, but Quesada enforced it.
- 2005 – ‘The Other’ – this one took the magical/mystical basis for a Spider-Man story and blew it up to make it the very reason Peter became Spider-Man. We find out that the spider that bit Peter years ago at that fateful science demonstration, didn’t do so accidentally, but because Peter’s animal totem was a spider and he was chosen. To me, this very concept undoes much of what Stan and Steve tried to make a major part of Peter’s story – that he was a nobody who fate allowed to become Spider-Man. A person can’t be a nobody AND the chosen one at the same time! J. Michael Straczynski would again be the main writer for this as well as even worse stories to follow that further damaged the legacy of Spider-Man.
- 2005 – this was also the year Spider-Man joined the Avengers, something he had, rightly, avoided doing for 43 years. Spider-Man was always best as a loner who worked with other heroes but never as a member of a team. But, Joe Quesada felt that as the Avengers were originally built using the most popular characters in Marvel at the time in 1963, it had been a mistake to not have Spider-Man (and Wolverine) included in their ranks. Apparently Stan Lee knew better and that is why Stan Lee will go down as a legend and Joe Quesada will go down as the arbiter of the abysmal failures that would start the landslide into mediocrity and downright poor product output from Marvel moving forward.
- 2006 – ‘Civil War’ – although Civil War is an enormous story that encompasses all of the Marvel characters through nearly all of the titles being published at the time, it is infamous for one act its writers perpetrate on Spider-Man. During a battle between the superhero team The New Warriors and some villains, a school, filled with young children, is destroyed, killing all inside. *note: remember when comics used to be fun?* In response, the government demands that all masked adventurers register their identities. This act draws a definite line in the sand with many heroes firmly on one side and the rest on the other. Showing solidarity with Iron Man – who approved of registration (big whoop! Everyone already knew Tony Stark was Iron Man) and has become a sort-of mentor to Peter since he joined the Avengers, another slap in the face to a character who had been around for decades, was incredibly successful on his own and didn’t need or want mentorship – Peter unmasks on national television, revealing to the world his identity and thus destroying decades of established reasoning for NOT doing so – to protect the lives of those he loved, namely Aunt May, who is somehow still alive, as well as Mary Jane, now his wife. This one decision would pave the way for most of the worse grievances to follow. This time, Scottish hack, Mark Millar, was to blame, not specifically for the Spider-Man part – that would again fall the Straczynski – but for the entire miserable affair. Millar is like several of the writers who, though great at writing their own characters in their preferred genre, have taken classic Marvel characters and ruined them by infusing their own ‘essence’. Millar is great at writing grim, dark stories and his comic book Kick-Ass, the story of a young boy who has all of his nerve endings damaged in a violent accident, causing him to no longer be able to feel pain, and becomes a vigilante superhero is as entertaining and addictive as it is original. His work on more established characters, however, is an atrocity.
- 2007 – ‘Back in Black’ – since his public unmasking in Civil War, Peter ultimately decided to change sides and join Captain America’s team after seeing firsthand the horrible treatment of former heroes at the government detention center, 42. As a result, Spider-Man is booted from the Avengers and no longer has their protection. In one of the first of the snowballing repercussions of this, villains are now hunting for not only Spider-Man but Peter Parker, Mary Jane and Aunt May as well. One evening on the street, a bullet strikes Aunt May. Peter gets May to the hospital but she has lost a lot of blood and the doctor tells Mary Jane that she isn’t going to make it. Peter dons his old black suit (you know, to show how dark he now is) and goes on a hunt for the identity of the sniper. In a convoluted series of events that see Peter doing things normally reserved for sadistic vigilantes, he discovers that The Kingpin hired the assassin to kill, not May, but Peter. Peter breaks into the prison and, laying waste to decades of canon which indicates that The Kingpin is a match for him, Peter easily – and brutally – beats him. He then proceeds to torture The Kingpin. He tells The Kingpin that he is going to kill him if May dies. The rest of the story involves Peter realizing that the police are involved in efforts to endanger him and his family, so he and Mary Jane sneak May out of the hospital and go on the run. Chalk up another one for Straczynski.
- 2007 – ‘One More Day’ – to add to the snowballing ineptitude begun with the events from ‘Civil War’ and ‘Back in Black’, this storyline shows us what the creative braintrust at Marvel – Joe Quesada, J. Michael Staczynski, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb, Tom Brevoort, Axel Alonzo, Ed Brubaker (another successful author in other media and genres who didn;t transition well to comics), and Dan Slott (a writer who would soon assume control over the flagship Spider-Man title and take it to new depths of failure) – think Peter Parker would do to save the life of his elderly Aunt May (who had already ‘died’ multiple times since her first appearance in Amazing Fantasy 15. How does he do it? Well, he makes a deal with Mephisto that if he will save Aunt May’s life, Peter will give Mephisto his marriage to Mary Jane. Oh, and as a bonus, Mephisto will erase the memory of Peter unmasking himself from every person on the planet. And so, Peter and MJ’s marriage ended with no memory of it ever even happening and Peter’s identity as Spider-Man is once more a secret. To his credit, Staczynskin has stated publicly that he thought the entire idea was a bad one and even tried to have his name removed from the series until Quesada talked him out of it. In a nutshell, they wiped out Pete and MJ’s romantic history in a most contrived way simply because Quesada hated the union. He also stated that it was the only way to preserve the Spider-Man legacy and extend it longer. Ironically, there was (rightly) a fan uproar calling it the worst Spider-Man story ever and readership of the character dropped sharply afterwards. Way to go, Joe.
- 2008 – “Brand New Day’ – I won;t go into detail on this one. I only include it to note that this is the first major storyline written by Dan Slott who will later take over the title and see Spider-Man through some of his worst storylines ever. Let’s just say that, following the event’s of ‘One More Day’, Aunt May is alive and well, Peter and MJ are hardly speaking and she is dating a movie star, The Daily Bugle has been bought by someone else, and somehow, Harry Osborne is back from the dead, now discovered to have been living in Europe. Ugh.
- Honorable mention: from here on, the Spider-Man legacy is taken lower and lower so I will not dignify these storylines with any details. I will just say that I would shortly cease buying any new Marvel comics, something I had been actively doing for over 30 years. The final straw was when Dr. Octopus, as he is dying, employs a machine that transfers his spirit into the body of Peter Parker. Peter is now a slave in his own mind, helpless to stop all that follows. Octavius, now having access to all of Peter’s memories, realizes that he is Spider-Man and he decides that since he is superior to Parker, he will show the world a better Spider-Man – A Superior Spider-Man. This was, of course, the brainchild of Dan Slott, a portly fellow who many have speculated made Octopus (himself a rather rotund character) Spider-Man as a vicarious vehicle to realize his own childhood fantasies. Regardless, whatever the reason, I could not take seeing my beloved favorite character treated this way any longer and thus ended my decades-long financial relationship with Marvel. From that point, I refocused my efforts on completing my Spider-Man collection, including all miscellaneous series plus one-shots and mini-series, an endeavor I am still actively pursuing today.
Spider-Man will always be my favorite superhero. However, I don;t consider the character that has emerged in the last twenty-plus years to be the same one I came to know and love, regardless of Marvel owning the rights to the character and thus, the right to state that the current character is one and the same. The mistreatment of Spider-Man is only a microcosm of what Marvel has done to nearly its entire line. They have replaced Captain Marvel, Thor, Captain America, The Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and several more with any combination of minority representation (female, black, Muslim, etc.) to present themselves as more ‘progressive’ and in lock-step with identity politics.
I know I am not alone in my displeasure with this change. Sales of Marvel comic books have plummeted and hundreds of comic book stores have gone out of business in the last few years. The implication from the knee-jerkers is that we are racist/misogynist/homophobic which is not the case at all. I have no problem with Marvel creating new black/Muslim/gay/female characters. The problem I and most older fans have with Marvel is that they have taken heroes and their legacies and changed them unnecessarily in the name of social justice.
But the thing that gives me assurance is that, regardless of what garbage Marvel puts out now and in the future, they can never erase the masterpieces created by true innovators like Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and so many other writers and artists of the silver and bronze age.
That was truly the Marvel Age of Comics.